Aceyalone is not some corporate mouthpiece. He's a messenger from hip-hop's underground, an MC who briefly surfaced and dipped his toe in the major-label pond, only to find the water too damn cold for his liking. So Aceyalone and his irrepressibly intelligent flow fled from the marble halls of L.A.'s recording industry and retreated back to his South Central haunt, where he has, against all odds, become one of the City of Angels' most influential independent artists, elevating rap to an art form without sinking to the depths of gangsta rap.
You could almost make the argument that Aceyalone's success has made him too confident. His newest album, Accepted Eclectic, scheduled for release later this month, boasts an opening track, "Rappers, Rappers, Rappers," that's ostensibly a celebration of MCs everywhere. But it's really a celebration of Aceyalone's influence on those MCs. The man is unapologetic.
"I got the shit," Acey says via his cell phone. "It doesn't mean I don't have to work -- I didn't have to work -- for it. But it's there. I look at it like this: As I grow as a person, I will incorporate everything into the music. I'm just one man; any influence I can have I want to use responsibly."
Engine Room, 1515 Pease
With the Ground Control Allstars (the Masterminds, Ed O.G. and Rasco)
Sunday, February 25
"I mean, technically, nobody is trying to be a role model," Acey continues, flowing like a river. "You want to put some good energy on the planet. I'm not a saint; at the same time I'd rather be remembered for some good ideas."
The quote is classic Aceyalone: What started out as a defense for his bravado has been twisted, somehow, some way, into a message of responsibility and goodwill. His free-wheeling, free-thinking conversational style mirrors his music: On record, he's a maestro of language and rhythm, his control flawless, his syllables falling like a perfectly stacked row of dominoes. His records boast complex rhymes that are provocative, searing. In an era when insipid words pieced together in a studio disappear in a Puff of smoke, Acey's poetry stings, then sticks.
Frankly, his lyrical flow is too meaty, too textured and too dense for the banal rap craved by the big record houses. Which puts Aceyalone in an awkward position: Regarded by some as the best MC -- past or present -- to step behind a microphone, Acey wouldn't mind finding a larger audience, but he wants to remain fully in creative control. He knows the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of the situation.
"I can't be fully creative and get the attention of the mainstream," he says flatly.
Aceyalone should know. After making a name for himself with the hugely influential Freestyle Fellowship, particularly with the hip-hop collective's 1991 underground masterpiece To Whom It May Concern (Sun Music), Acey released his solo debut, All Balls Don't Bounce, on Capitol Records in 1995. Apparently unhappy with the arrangement, Acey reportedly scuttled a multi-album deal with the major and opted to go it alone. He formed his L.A.-based underground label Project Blowed, through which he would release his own sophomore disc, The Book of Human Language, in 1998.
"The main difference between being independent and being with a major," Acey told L.A. Weekly in 1998, "is about $5 a record. The ten cents you get paid per record with the major and the $5 you get per record doing it yourself -- it's a big difference."
Acey has since rolled his Project Blowed label into Nu Gruv, a San Francisco-based alliance of artists and labels dedicated to promoting underground music, from techno to electronica to hip-hop. It's just the latest move he's made to gain a wider exposure.
"I want to continue on the path I've started," Acey says. "People don't get to hear us much, our music; it's the politics of putting out records. I want them to hear, because this is pushing the envelope."
"Mainstream audiences are conditioned," he adds. "I've been a victim of that. I do want to make music that people like; I don't want to make music that fools."
Aceyalone wasn't even sure he wanted to join Freestyle Fellowship when the group was first forming. At the time, he was a 21-year-old assistant teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Ultimately he opted to leave the classroom and tour with fellow hip-hoppers Self Jupiter, Mikah 9 and P.E.A.C.E. Little did he know that by the time the group's second album, Innercity Griots (Island), was released, he would be leading the new wave of underground hip-hop in Los Angeles, riding the crest of his polyrhythmic poetry, which flowed loosely over the group's jazzy, syncopated beats.
"It just came naturally," he says of his rhyming skills. "As hip-hop invaded the culture, nature just put it into me." But he didn't take his natural skills for granted; he worked hard at honing them. "If I'd spent as much time working to be a doctor," he says, "I'd be an amazing doctor."
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Acey's skills were such that he wanted more creative space than Freestyle Fellowship offered; so he ventured into his solo career. It wasn't the first time he had decided to go it alone. After his very first group, the MC Aces, split up, he decided to adopt his pointed moniker -- Aceyalone -- and fly without any copilots.
But he hasn't completely abandoned Freestyle Fellowship. In fact, the group released a single in 1999, "Can You Find the Level of Difficulty in This?" which fueled rumors the group would re-form. "Of course we're going to reunite," Acey says confidently. "We just finished another album; everyone is just trying to fulfill a solo career as well."
Whether with the Fellowship or as a solo act, Acey just wants to bring the music a bit more above ground. It's still questionable if Middle America will embrace Acey's gripping, gutsy rapoetry, but that won't stop him from giving them the opportunity to hear it.
"We got a lot more to come," he says. "But I'm not into draggin' 'em out. We might come through, turn a few heads."